It seems that “community engagement” has become the goal of many public entities. School districts, police departments, public health departments are just a few of the  governmental entities that build “community engagement” into their strategic plans. Then these entities with large power differentials between community members and the system holder launch “listening sessions” in order to elicit “feedback” to improve processes. But this type of “feedback” is neither effective “community engagement” nor is it authentically asking the community to be a partner in solving the challenges that matter most to them.

Instead these major systems leaders should use the best practice of “community-based participatory research” or CBPR. So, what is participatory research? When done by establishing trust and relationship first, it emphasizes the expertise and actionable knowledge community members bring to the issues of social and public policy that directly affect their lives. It is a fundamentally collaborative approach, bringing researchers, community members and decision-makers together to more effectively solve problems of community relevance, in the process, providing support for meaningful relationships to develop and thrive across institutional boundaries and limitations. As a result, it allows for cross-pollination of social and human capital and the reassessment of relational trust, priorities, and accountability between community members and public policy-makers. 

Community engagement at its best brings a diverse group of community members together to catalyze new relationships and to build trust between community members and those who serve and govern them. Community engagement is valuable without the need to demand that community members continually tell the system leaders how they can improve their performance. Continually asking for feedback diminishes trust and fosters anger and skepticism between those who seek the feedback and those who provide it. Why do large systems decision-makers always insist on receiving feedback rather than trusting that relationship building for the sake of supporting authentic, transparent connections? Frequently it is the demand that every single point of contact with the community be “productive.” But frequently this insistence from those resources holders and institutional decision makers instills frustration and fatigue in community members who’ve been continually asked for their input only to discover that none of their recommendations find their way into decision making or public policy.

As an organization that has helped more than 54,000 individuals come together across difference over the past 13 years, we have seen the damage this extractive and exploitative feedback seeking model of community engagement can cause. In the spirit of improving trust and connections between system decision makers and diverse community members we offer some best practice recommendations to follow when seeking to build relationships in and with communities:

1. Systems are responsible for institutional memory of the status and history of feedback, not the community. We have seen many times when there is leadership turnover or a new strategic plan system leaders say “let’s see what the community is thinking.” But often, the community has been protesting and making recommendations for years that have gone unheeded. It is the institution’s obligation to research their own past, to ensure that before they ask the community to the table they understand what the institution has already been asked to do in the past as well as how the institution has supported or continued relationships that were catalyzed in the past. If an institution seeks further relationship and connection with community after opening the door to new connections just three or four years earlier only to drop those connections the minute that the project is done, there is a high likelihood that inviting the community to share will inculcate hostility and not restoration. The very opposite of the intent of the system holder. 

2. Don’t ask for more feedback if you’re sitting on a treasure trove of previously provided community feedback. If you do want updated information, don’t throw away what previous community members have said. Communities largely seek holistic, restorative solutions that require systems investments in both money and doing things differently.

3. Don’t ask for feedback if you aren’t going to act on or honor any of it. When you ask the community for feedback it is implied that you are asking them to impact policy. Understand that communities want to be your partners in improving your ability to deliver on your organization’s mission.

4. Don’t ask for feedback if you have already made up your mind and have already determined the strategic public policy path that you are planning to take. 

5. You must report ALL the feedback you receive and not simply the positive feedback or the feedback with which you agree. As much as possible attempt to lift the authentic voices of your community and not a sanitized version. 

6. Be upfront and transparent about how your institution plans to use the feedback that is being offered by the community, as well as barriers and challenges that might exist to acting on that feedback. Be explicit if you are seeking an ongoing partnership and you are seeking the community to also engage with their proposed solution. The most effective participatory action research ignites systems holders and the community into a trustworthy partnership where innovation and collaboration leads to measurable improvements and outcomes.

7. Explicitly state how you plan to stay in relationship with and keep community abreast of progress. Inspiring connections then dropping the connections without keeping the community up-to-date is one of the most frequently violated best practices and a major breach of the trust community engagement is meant to build. Both great community engagement and participatory action research take investments in intention and money to build a truly inclusive environment by the systems who seek the relationship. 

8. Don’t feel compelled to have every point of connection between your system and the community be “productive.” Recognize that just being in each others company and having fun and light moments where we discuss the visions and aspirations we hold for our community is intrinsically valuable without always having to ask for feedback or for “comment.” Inspiring trust and showing up authentically isn’t just done once in order to quell community dis-ease with the system. Relationships should be enthusiastically and joyfully maintained.

We hope you found these tips and best practices useful! We plan to post more of our strategies and reflections in the future so keep an eye out here as well as on our facebook.